Thoughts on the Boards

A place for my updates and pseudo-ruminations  

The Alphabet and The Algorithm and its Relevance to Landscape Design

carpo book image.jpg

In this current Age of Information, those of us who are not “digital natives” tend to look back on the days we were first introduced to personal computers and wax philosophical about how the simple integration of a certain digital technology has so quickly and so profoundly transformed our culture and commerce, as well as whether such transformations are bringing our society in the right direction. The Alphabet and The Algorithm is an architect’s version of that rumination. In it the reader is introduced to the authorial voice of Mario Carpo—an architectural historian and critic who also serves as professor of theory at University College, London—and then taken on a tour through the story of authorship in architecture and how revolutions in methods and technology have spurred its evolution. In its simplest form, Carpo’s main argument is that architecture has changed from an art of craftsmanship and on-site collaboration, where no work would ever have one true author; to one of notation and identicality between plans and actual constructions, thus solidifying the architect’s role as sole designer; and now to an act of digital differentiation and mass customization, which has the charm of individual craftsmanship while retaining a new authorship role for the architect.

While there is no doubt that The Alphabet and The Algorithm makes an important argument in the realm of architectural design—especially given the nature of our current design dialectic—it also opens an opportunity to discuss the subject matter from the perspective of landscape design. In this paper, I hope to provide a starting point for that discussion by highlighting the ways Carpo’s collated history has similar relevance in landscape architecture, the ways in which it differs, and finally, the way landscape fits into the future the author predicts for the design professions.



Architecture and landscape design share many similarities in their histories. This makes sense since projects in the built environment have almost always required services from both disciplines—not to mention the many instances in history where the roles of architect and landscape architect were filled by the same person. While the knowledge of these similarities is well documented as it pertains to styles, movements, and people, Carpo’s historical summary offers an exceptional dialogue which deals with tools and authorship. I find the most striking observations to be those on the recent emergence of cad-cam, 3-d design, and fabrication.

Just as the industrial revolution pushed architects to provide economies of scale in both design production and construction, so too did it push landscape architects to manufacture replicas of designed landscapes in inappropriate places and at inappropriate scales, all in the name of cost saving. But as Carpo points out, “In a digital production process, standardization is no longer a money-saver. Likewise, customization is no longer a money-waster.” [i] Thus, landscape designers now have the freedom to focus their time on deciphering the parameters of the landscape instead of preoccupying themselves over the parameters of production costs.

Another similarity the landscape profession shares with Carpo’s futuristic architects is the advantages afforded by three-dimensional design software. As he puts it “even though a computer screen is two-dimensional, all three-dimensional forms visualized through it may exist in a computational three-dimensional space right from the start,” [ii] thus saving time and brain damage in translating renderings into notational documents. Furthermore, Carpo expounds on the idea that this narrative of shared digital efficiencies in the architectural and landscape design fields is also evolving into one of shared innovation: 

“due to cad-cam integration, and counter to the Albertian principle of separation between notation and construction, digital architects today are increasingly designing and making at the same time. Acting almost like prosthetic extensions of the hands of the artisan, digital design and fabrication tools are creating a curiously high-tech analog of preindustrial artisanal practices. . . . Owing to cad-cam integration and bim (building information modeling) software, design and production will increasingly merge and overlap in a single, seamless process of creation and production. In some cases, limited for now to the fabrication of small objects and prototyping, existing cad-cam technologies have already achieved that stage: an architect’s design can be immediately and automatically fabricated—if need be, in front of the architect and while the architect is still working on it.”[iii]


While the Alphabet and the Algorithm illustrates a great deal of similarity in the histories of architectural and landscape design, there are a number of striking differences that are important to mention, the most notable one being the notion of the author in landscape design. Throughout most of the work Carpo repeatedly emphasizes the rise of Alberti as one of the most pivotal points of architectural history, mainly because of the self-assertion of the architect as sole designer through the use of notational drawing. This is done so by first distinguishing the designer from the craftsman by requiring that the finished work be an exact replica of the scaled plan drawing. As Carpo states “in the Albertian, allographic way of building the only work truly made by the author is the design of the building—not the building itself, which by definition is made by others. The only way for Alberti to claim an extension of authorship, so to speak, from the drawing to the building was to require that the building and its design should be seen as perfectly identical.”[iv] With this reformed structure of designing and building “architecture ideally acquires a fully authorial, allographic, notational status. Insofar as a building and its design are considered notationally identical, one can identify an architectural work either with the design of the building or with the building itself,” or in other words “the design of a building is the original, and the building is its copy.” [v] This argument for notation and identicality defining authorship, while strong in the case of architecture, loses clout in the realm of landscape design. This is because 1) landscape design deals with the natural environment which is impossible to represent with exactness, and 2) landscape design is inherently more collaborative than architecture—mostly due to the aforementioned problem of drawing and building changes in nature—and therefore defines authorship differently.

Because landscape designers work with the natural environment, the way that they utilize the Albertian method of design has its limits. While certain notational tools (such as a scale or dimensions of structures/materials) can be used with a sense of identicality, they can never apply to the entirety of a site design and can subsequently never claim sole authorship for the designer—i.e. one cannot look at a tree in Central Park, identify its exact structure and placement within the original plan, and then award sole authorship of the tree’s design to Frederick Law Olmsted. This is because the tree is a living and changing part of a greater living and changing system. Thus, it is impossible to notate and replicate its design with precision.

Historically, this lack of notational precision has necessitated that designers be collaborating with craftsmen, builders, and planters through the entirety of design and construction, if not preforming the work themselves. Therefore, when the work is done, the designers claim to authorship comes not just from the ability to produce a plan that builders can replicate with some precision, but also being able to address, in person, the inevitable visual discrepancies of that plan. So, we see that the authorship of a landscape architect is in most cases functionally different from that of an architect, at least in the Albertian sense of the word.



With the fall of Albertian design methods and the rise of digital software tools with their differential customization, the nature of the designer’s authorship is changing dramatically. Carpo notes that this is particularly unsettling for architects, saying that with “the sometimes messianic, sometimes apocalyptic premonitions of a digitally induced disappearance of traditional authorship, architects have additional reasons to fear developments that may amplify the role of other participants in the design process.”[vi] I think he is right, and would even go as far as to add that, in contrast, landscape architects have additional reasons to be excited about the very same developments, because their skill sets are tailored for the new age of design.

To quell the fears of how architects will define their authorship, Carpo ends his work by asserting that such definition will come in building algorithms and functions in the latest digital software. He says, “today’s stilus is not the style of the designer but the inevitable trace left by the software being used— which, just as Cicero’s stilus was, is itself man-made and produced by specialized technicians.”[vii] Still, though, he even qualifies his words when he states that as we enter a new realm driven by “exactly repeatable, visible imprints,” one must be wary that “the erratic drift of manual copies may distort or confuse the sign of the original archetype and, as a result, conceal the identity of its author, or make it irrelevant…”[viii] In the case of the landscape architect, there is no need to fear such things because our authorship is not defined in the same way. First and foremost, we care that landscapes function and that people thrive in them, and we ensure that such happens by tailoring our design process to the problem at hand. Our authorship is in our process rather than our product, though there will undoubtedly be stylistic cues in the latter.

As Carpo continues to discuss the way new tech is changing design, it becomes evident to me that the way in which landscape designers see these tools is often different than that of the author. Perhaps the most clear example of this is the claim that “digital technologies for design and fabrication may…still be seen as instrumental mediators, but functionally they are more akin to material utensils, like hammers and chisels, than to traditional notational vectors such as blueprints or construction drawings,” and moreover that “Cad-cam applications are responsive tools for designing and making at the same time, not recording tools for scripting a final but inert set of design instructions.”[ix] Against Carpo’s wishes, landscape architects are most often using them in exactly that way, using them to digitize hand sketches, draft construction documents, and create digital renderings rather than iterate the actual design. There is good reason for this. In the author’s ideal world, the new school designer is fluent enough in new technologies to wield them in the same way the old schoolers used pens, trash paper, and models to iterate. While it is a nice idea, it is simply not a reality of the times. Most designers are not well versed enough in these newer design tools to use them for iterative purposes, nor are the technologies advanced enough to iterate at their level of expertise, or in some cases abstractness—remember, as the book states, even Frank Gehry still starts his designs with sketching and paper models.[x] That is because those sketches and paper models are Gehry’s strongest way of communicating his ideas.

I think Carpo is aware of this. He says that “in the most extreme cases, when a form is too difficult to notate geometrically, the last resort of the designer may well be to abandon the modern design process altogether, and return to the traditional, pre-Albertian, autographic way of building. If you can’t draw what you have in mind in order to have others make it for you, you can still try to make it yourself.”[xi] Even though he is speaking of notational methods in this quote, it also applies to the 3-d design methods he champions, at least in their current state.

This is changing, however. With each new available software update comes a new level of sophistication in design capabilities. As Carpo aptly states, “digital tools no longer need to separate the thinker and the making; on the contrary, if pertinently put to use, digital technologies may reunite most of what mechanical technologies had alienated—including the various communities that in the pre-mechanical world were associated with, and dignified, all Things handmade.”[xii]

This new reality of differential mass customization is not only changing the process for designers but also the stakeholders. With digital ubiquity on our doorstep the public can now be a part of the input phases like never before, and “the participatory nature of the design process…is equally evocative of the collective and often anonymous way of building that was common on medieval building sites before the humanists’ revolution…the contemporary digital technologies are in many ways closer to some cultural technologies that preceded the mechanical age than they are to the mechanical age we are now abandoning.”[xiii] But with this opportunity there comes the enormous challenge of influencing the public to become adept to both the technologies and the design process. There is a big difference in knowledge base between the anonymous builders of medieval times and those of today, namely that the former literally knew how to build things and therefore understood the functions and implications of a design decision. This understanding is not so universally found in the latter group. While the current generation knows more than any other about the types of things that can be built because of our shear exposure to information in the abstract, the segment of our society that understands where the rubber meets the road in practice is noticeably smaller than those before us. If we are to embrace the new world of “seamless, on-demand customization through interactive decision-making, hence—ideally—social responsibility in design, as well as parsimony in the use of natural and human resources,”[xiv] we have to have a public that is educated enough to know what such things look like. It will not happen incidentally.

The transition to digital design technologies is inevitable; the benefits and demands far outweigh any perceived costs. The way we transition, however, is not. I believe Carpo is right about what the future holds for design, but until the day we can all use software as naturally as we use pencil, paper, or clay, we must be prudent in the role we let such software play in our process. Flashy new toys may augment the way we play, but they will never replace the imaginations that inspire us to play in the first place.




[i] Carpo, Mario. The alphabet and the algorithm. n.p.: Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2011. Louisiana State University, EBSCOhost (accessed September 5, 2017), 41.

[ii] Ibid. 33

[iii] Ibid. 45, 79

[iv] Ibid. 22

[v] Ibid. 26

[vi] Ibid. 115-116

[vii] Ibid. 100

[viii] Ibid. 100-101

[ix] Ibid. 35

[x] Ibid. 38

[xi] Ibid. 32

[xii] Ibid. 119

[xiii] Ibid. 118

[xiv] Ibid. 126-127

Phillip Fernberg